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A plaintive question – In Scientio, Veritas

A plaintive question

Last week, Eva Amsen (or was it Cath Ennis? My apologies to both for the confusion) commented on Twitter that it is her shortest blog posts that seem to attract the the maximum visitors. Taking that as the gospel truth, I am putting down my shortest post ever.

It comes in form of a question. A very serious question:

“How do you do it?”

Before anyone gets ideas, I hasten to clarify, by ‘it’ I’m referring to adroit feats of management of time. And I direct that question to my favorite authors and bloggers, especially those who are professionally engaged in non-blogging activity.

“How do you manage it all? How do you deal with the information overload and the urge to disseminate it, along with your views and opinions?”

Austin Elliot, Stephen Curry, Jenny, Eva, Cath, Richard Grant, Ian Brooks, Henry, Bob O’Hara and GrrlScientist – people that I know from the Nature Network – as well as many others from elsewhere (such as PZ Myers (Pharyngula), David Gorski (Science-Based Medicine), David Colquhoun (DC’s improbable science), Andy Lewis (Quackometer), David Allen Green (Jack of Kent), to name but a few) – are all busy professionals, researchers and scientists, teachers, lawyers or physicians, engaged in a variety of different professions. Yet, they are also all prolific bloggers – at Nature Network and/or elsewhere – with voluminous, rapid-fire Twitter feeds, constantly battling forces of unreason, be it in form of government decisions and politics, or pseudoscience of various shades and hues, or religious wingnuttery, or some such.

I follow all of them. Religiously. (Well… almost!)

These people are actively engaged in their respective fields of expertise, and yet they find time to be aware of the contemporary world around them and to take part in reasoned commentary, giving us mortals the benefit of their considerable experience, and occasionally, their playful whimsies, that inform, educate, as well as delight. On occasions, I have even found some of these prodigious individuals doing live-blogging from meetings and conferences while taking part in them. Richard Grant has been known to occasionally write fantastic Science Fiction stories; Jenny Rohn is already a celebrated author.

“How do you do it all?”

I am IN inestimable AWE. Would that I had the same capabilities. Sigh.

What with crazies and crackpots suddenly pouring out of the woodwork in the US, spreading across politics, economics, society, and into our daily lives, with profoundly ethics-free messages lacking human values; assorted news about homeopathy and other crankery including harmful anti-vaccination propaganda; news from across the pond about important campaigns, such as Science Is Vital, and about various legal situations of far reaching consequences, such as the Twitter Joke Trial and Libel Reform; coupled with all that – my own research work, I am suffering from a veritable information overload. The trouble is that I don’t want to give up any of it!

But these awesome individuals do it all, with aplomb and erudition and grace and tenacity – not to mention, amazing regularity.


I do want to know the secret. Wish I could hypnotize you into spilling your guts. But since I can’t (I don’t know how to! Another sigh!), please comment if you can spare a few moments.


  1. Stephen Curry

     Hi Kausik – There are several possible answers to this question:

    1. Don’t tell the Agents, but we have all taken the red pill and escaped the Matrix…
    2. You are too kind – it is all a figment of your imagination.
    3. There’s no secret – it’s just hard, hard work and a care for what is said or written.
  2. Kausik Datta

    Let me add the thoughts that the redoubtable Henry Gee shared via Twitter:

    Some people don’t watch TV. Others can do a lot in v short bursts of concentrated effort. Me? I’m just knackered.

    RPG, succinct as always (otherwise, it is difficult to fit that wonderful Sci-Fi story in a single page with 2 and a half columns of Futures), said, also via Twitter:

    Happy thoughts and a sprinkling of fairy dust…

    I shall try thinking happy thoughts till I am blue in the face. Can’t vouch for the faerie dust, though. Will report.✍

    Thanks to all three of you for kindly commenting.

  3. Richard P. Grant

     More helpfully than the very dust, I agree with Prof. Curry. But I’m not going to give away all my secrets.

    Except I don’t watch TV.

  4. Henry Gee

    Hi Kausik – thanks for the kind words. I tweeted earlier from my iGadget, and would have replied here, except that NN currently doesn’t allow you to comment from such a device. But I’m here now.

    There is no, one secret.

    I know at least two people (one of whom is Jenny) who ascribe their volcanic output to not watching the TV. This is a huge time-suck.

    Me? I couldn’t get by without my fix of trash TV, though I have to say, I tend to watch particular programmes and switch the set off, rather than having the thing droning on all the time, as is the case, regrettably, in many homes.

    But each person manages his or her time differently – so I can only speak for myself.

    I am a professional journalist. Over many years I have learned to write on a wide range of subjects to a tight deadline, to a standard that people actually want to read it and pay me for my efforts. False modesty being a much overrated virtue, I have to say that many people simply don’t have that degree of fluency, but for those that do, it can be refined with practice. Writers who write well, write every day. Writing is like any activity, whether it is playing a musical instrument or engaging in a sporting activity – it improves with practice and repetition.

    If I am engaged in a project that requires more than a couple of hours work, I tend to devote quite a bit of time to it to the exclusion of all else. When I am drafting a new book, for example, I live, breathe, eat and sleep it, much to the annoyance of my family and friends. But I have long learned that the only way to get a book written is to be driven – to have a messianic conviction that (1) this book has to be written, and (2) I’m the only person who can do it. But when I have finished a book, I will devote the same degree of fervor to, for example, making a dresser for the kitchen, or rehearsing for a big rock gig.

  5. Eva Amsen

    I don’t manage it well at all. Jenny tells people her trick is that she doesn’t own a TV. I don’t either, but that barely helps me, because I just watch things online whenever I have a moment.

    I think I just seem on top of things at the moment because I also blog for work, but I completely lost track of all the science blogs that moved to new networks in the past months, and my regular blogs that I read for fun now are not about science at all.

    I only found your post because you tagged me on Twitter. Twitter is easier to keep up with, because it’s short and I can see it on my phone and I can scroll past it really quick to get an overview. But I rarely read the things people link to.

    Confession: I didn’t read your entire post. I just read enough of it to figure out what you were asking. If there’s a trick at all, that’s it.

  6. Eva Amsen

    Oh, and it wasn’t me saying that on Twitter. Was probably Cath then.

  7. Henry Gee

    Something that Eva wrote above:

    Confession: I didn’t read your entire post. I just read enough of it to figure out what you were asking. If there’s a trick at all, that’s it.

    These days I rarely read long articles. I prefer short snippets, abstracts and summaries, which encapsulate what you need to know. I did read your post in its entirety, but it’s not very long, and adds to your original point possibly made by Cath – it’s the shortest posts that attract the most attention. What with the distractions of modern life, people simply don’t have time to invest in something long, whose returns in terms of enlightenment can’t be judged beforehand.

    When I turned 48 and the shades of mortality started to creep above the window ledge I adopted a number of resolutions. One was that I wouldn’t waste time arguing with vexatious persons (no more pharyngula for me!). Another was that I wouldn’t have anything to do with computers that took an age to do anything (PCs are out – for me it’s Macs and iGadgets all the way).

    As you say, it’s a question of time management.


  8. Ken Doyle

    I wish I knew the secret as well. I don’t watch TV either, but there are plenty of other distractions in the form of family, and house-related projects.

    For one month (November), I managed to put aside most other issues and write a 50,000-word (horrible first draft of a) novel. It felt great, but I know I can’t sustain that level of activity year-round without divorce proceedings being initiated…

  9. Barbara Ferreira

    About a month ago I asked that very same question, "How do you do it?", to Ed Yong. I commented on one of his "I’ve got your missing links right here" posts (a weekly collection of around 50 links to interesting science-related stories) because I wondered how he could possibly have a full-time job, write almost daily 1000-words blog posts, and still know about what’s going on elsewhere in the blogosphere and beyond.

    His reply? "@ Barbara – My secret: I bend-o time and space

  10. Cath Ennis

    I watch TV, but with the exception of sport and a very small number of favourite programmes, I’m usually doing something else at the same time, such as reading blogs or tweeting. And I usually take blogging/Twitter breaks rather than proper lunch breaks at work (there’s no tradition of socialising at lunch and coffee here, unlike the other places I’ve worked).


    The big secret? It really doesn’t take that much time to bang out a quick blog post or comment, not once you’ve had enough practice and know your readers well enough not to have to agonise over the minutiae of what you’ve written. And no tweet has ever taken me longer than a minute or two to write.


    The fairydust helps, too.


  11. Cath Ennis

    p.s. yes, it was me who mentioned short posts getting the most comments on Twitter. But don’t worry: Eva, Asa and I are actually all the same person.

  12. Erika Cule

    not to have to agonise over the minutiae of what you’ve written

    This is one of the reasons I don’t blog as much as I would like to. I do agonise. 

  13. Cath Ennis

    Oh, I do too, in other pieces of writing. But not generally with blog posts, not any more.

  14. Richard P. Grant

     My secret is that I don’t comment on blogs.

  15. Austin Elliott

     Honoured to get a mention at the top, though I have think you have the wrong bloke..! 

    I actually feel the same way you do ("How do they do it?") about people who:

    {i) have far more demanding jobs/work much harder than I do;  and
    (ii) manage far more blogging/writing.

    There are many examples, including Orac, Ed Yong, David Colquhoun, Henry Gee etc etc.

    I think that a big part of it is NOT being too much of a procrastinator – which is another reason I don’t really feel I belong in the company at the top of your post! I am, myself, an Epic Procrastinator before all else. It’s certainly been one of my career stumbling blocks,  and I can see it in my blogging too.  

    Related to that, one thing that does stand out is prioritizing, in the sense that, in the face of competing demands, you will tend to do those things that are really important to you. I think this is true of all real "super-multi-taskers" – it is certainly something that always comes up when one talks to such folk. So in my case, I guess the wind-down in my research career as my blogging and other public-facing work has ramped up over the last few years probably tells its own story. 

    Another point is that one needs to have the ability, not just to write things, but to finish writing them. I agree with Henry about writing being a habit, and writing every day for a writer being like practise for a musician. But it is also important knowing when to stop and send something "to the press" (or to the blog). You clearly have to have this latter ability to be a success in professional journalism, which is one reason why I would never have made a professional journalist. If there are two abilities that I crave as a writer, and that I don’t have, they are (i) brevity; and (ii) the ability to finish stuff. I was joking the other day that my blog really ought to be called “A Trawl Through My Unfinished Ephemera.”

  16. Cath Ennis

    Heh! For me, blogging IS procrastination πŸ™‚

  17. Richard P. Grant

     Yes, I agree. And as for finishing things, you’re absolutely

  18. Jennifer Rohn

    Ditching the TV is definitely a top tip. I’ve never looked back. I watch about 1 hour a week on iPlayer, tops. Close friends know what that program is, thanks to a drunken confession in front of Henry’s Flip HD.

    My other secret is I work pretty much every evening and a lot of the weekends too. Fortunately writing for me is ilke recreation, so it’s less like work and more like a hobby that relaxes me and gives me pleasure. You’ll notice I only blog once a week on average and that the average length of my blog posts is 400-500 words only. That helps too.

  19. Kausik Datta

    A BIG THANK YOU to all who commented. I am much indebted to all of you.

    Cath asked me via Twitter (I just noticed that) if the answers so far have been helpful.

    Oh, yes! Extremely. If nothing else, it is a sobering and oddly inspiring feeling to know that I am not alone, when in presence of these giants, I feel small and inadequate.

    Like Cath, I also watch a little bit of TV, mostly MSNBC (Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann and Lawrence O’Donnell) and Comedy Central (Jon Stewart and the irrepressible Stephen Colbert; don’t laugh!), because I need to be aware of the ever-changing US political scenario – which will doubtless impinge upon my personal and professional lives, as well as those of countless others.

    Confession: I am a sucker for two crime dramas on US TV, NCIS and Law & Order: SVU. Hope you all wouldn’t think less of me for that weakness. But taking a cue from Cath, I shall try to use my TV time more productively by simultaneously trying to write something.

    The most important messages that I am taking home from this most helpful discourse are:

    1. As Prof. Curry mentioned, it has to be hard, hard, hard work. Jenny mentioned she embodies this, but when work becomes play, things are a lot easier. But I am still in awe of the fact that she manages her lab-stuff equally efficiently.
    2. As Henry said, “Writers who write well, write every day. Writing is like any activity, whether it is playing a musical instrument or engaging in a sporting activity – it improves with practice and repetition.”

    I should print that out in large letters, frame and hang it where I can see it everyday.

  20. Grant Jacobs

    Sorry to be joining this so late.

    I know how you feel – I wrote a post not too long ago inviting people to share how long it takes them to write a science blog post, partly based on similar feelings! I restricted my question to posts that are reporting on published science, which are—in my experience—a lot more work. The range of replies were pretty striking, but most seemed to take a lot of time over it.

    I think what you write about makes quite a difference. If it’s more in the way of commentary or observation than explaining a research paper, then I find the basic structure of the article comes about while thinking about it another setting, say, walking to the supermarket. (I can walk to everywhere from where I live!) Once that’s in place, I find they don’t take that long. I’m picky about wording and fret, so they take longer than an experienced writer I guess.

    Research-based articles on the other hand, for me anyway, involve a lot of cross-checking, and care over explaining things, ending up being a lot work for the number of words in the final piece. (Not saying I don’t like writing these: they’re in practice what I’d prefer to write if I had infinite time—or someone paid me!)

    My experience has been similar to what Stephen wrote – that it’s a fair bit of work and you just have to make time. You get quicker over time… I hope πŸ™‚

    I agree with Jennifer in that TV is a real time-waster. I do watch the odd junk movie to wind down, but it’s more likely to be a novel. One thing I do sometimes do is do scraps of the an article in the advertisement breaks. Laptops are useful that way πŸ™‚

    Last year I made a point of writing every day, with rare exceptions. The only problem I found was that it’s easier if I didn’t limit myself to just science reporting, owing to the time involved in reading the literature and background checking papers, etc. I find once I start, I tend to get a bit wrapped up in the thing! So I guess, like Jennifer, it’s a sort of recreation for me, too.

    Just adding to Henry’s more experienced words, I personally find it helps to think about what is making things work in your and others’ articles, and to re-read your old posts some time later. I suspect if you just blindly write without thinking about it, you’d progress less quickly. (Henry: thoughts?)

    I’d better shut up as I’m making a nuisance myself πŸ˜‰ Besides work beckons. Thanks for the good article and discussion to read.

  21. Cath Ennis

    Something else that I’ve literally only just consciously realised that I do:


    I’ll spend half an hour or so at a time working on a manuscript, grant, or other document for work, and then "relax" by spending 5 minutes writing a tweet or two, or a blog comment, or working on a draft blog post. It’s a nice change of pace that allows me to come back to the work document with fresh eyes and focus.


    Of course, people always come by my desk when I’m doing the non-work stuff, even though it takes up a very small fraction of my overall time πŸ™‚

  22. Kausik Datta

    Thanks very much, Grant. I could only nod in agreement with what you said about research articles. I have experienced the very same thing when trying to deconstruct bad science articles in woo-woo journals (such as: Homeopathy); I keep wondering (1) how those articles are ever published, and (2) why I must have so much difficulty in getting my work published (albeit in – admittedly – scores better journals with higher scientific standards compared to – ahem! – Homeopathy).

    Cath, I think that is a very good technique; I, too, just realized I do the same, in between steps of benchwork! But sadly, sometimes, the moments of respite are just not enough!

  23. Frank Norman

    A very interesting discussion, Kausik, that echoes my feelings.  I think the answer may be that some of these enormously productive people just have enormous brains, or brains that work 100% faster than mine.  Either that or I’m just too lazy and prone to flake out at the end of the day.

    Also, why is it so much easier to comment on someone else’s blog than to answer the comments on my own blog?

  24. Henry Gee

    Grant asked:

    Just adding to Henry’s more experienced words, I personally find it helps to think about what is making things work in your and others’ articles, and to re-read your old posts some time later. I suspect if you just blindly write without thinking about it, you’d progress less quickly. (Henry: thoughts?)

    I’m afraid that mostly I just blindly barge in.

    Usually, when I write a quick blog post, it’s mostly in my head before I write it, at least in some inchoate form (I spend more time correcting the typos afterwards than writing). However, it does help to have some notes and an idea of structure, especially if you are composing a piece on research, which takes a lot of fact-checking and referencing.

    As to the ‘what is making things work’ aspect, I found that my skills in that regard improved markedly when I went to an adult-education program in my mid-30s to study for an ‘A’ level (read high-school diploma) in English literature, which I never did at school. Reading the literary greats and analysing what made their writing ‘work’ has been very beneficial.

  25. Kausik Datta

    …when I went to an adult-education program in my mid-30s to study for an ‘A’ level (read high-school diploma) in English literature…

    I am speechless. Wow.

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